Robocop (movie) review
Genre: Action, Science Fiction
Not so much?
If you ignore the original film and take this on its own merit, you’re left with a relatively shallow sci-fi movie, one which lacks bites in almost every way that matters. Compare it to the original and this is emphasised on a huge scale.
Let’s get one thing out of the way quickly: the remake of Robocop isn’t completely terrible. This may sound like praise so faint as to be worthless, but when you approach the film thinking “how bad is it really going to be?”, the bar is low enough that you may actually find bits that exceed expectations.
But it is a film that was going to face an uphill struggle by its very existence. Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original succeeded on a lot of levels, becoming an iconic movie of the 80s; it included satire, action, black comedy, social commentary on (then) modern life and a message about identity overcoming functionality – the man inside overcoming the machine.
Perhaps wisely, José Padilha’s movie is a retelling more than a remake, opening the door to new commentary, new satire, new ways of making the movie more relevant to the present day than its predecessor… and it is a crying shame these opportunities were not taken.
It opens like it is hoping to make strong points – flag-waving TV host Pat Novak (Samuel L Jackson) talking viewers through a live feed of American “drones” (re-imagined ED-209s and smaller humanoid automated robots) on a mission in Tehran, a heavy-handed metaphor about bringing peace at the end of a gun, as well as overseas involvement generally. The parallels to Afghanistan and Iraq are explicitly stated by a character in case the comparison had passed us by, but this commentary is then forgotten within five minutes.
Instead it turns to the morally corrupt OmniCorp chairman Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) and his team wanting to bring this technology to the streets of America. This is prevented by a law prohibiting robots from being given power over life or death on US soil – leading to the search for a man to place inside their technology instead. Dr Norton’s (Gary Oldman) work for the company in medical applications for robotics brings him quickly on board, and the seriously injured “cop who doesn’t play by the rules” (and family man) Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) gives them their test subject.
Of course, things do not go to plan, with Murphy’s desire to look after his family and solve his own attempted murder conflicting with his intended use to efficiently demonstrate that robots are not emotionally driven, ironically meaning they would be safe if given the power to kill. It goes without saying that things go wrong, although the twists in the movie are pretty clear to see coming.
The problem is that this film cannot be reviewed entirely on its own – it is forced to stand in comparison alongside the original, partly due to the impact the original had, partly due to its own use of references. And the fact is it falls short in nearly every single way.
Where a sense of the absurdity of robotic policemen would benefit from a lighter touch, here is it played seriously. Occasional quotes from the original raised brief smiles, although at other points felt levered in unnaturally and ultimately just served as a reminder – “you could be watching the original film right now instead”.
The film’s setting of Detroit somehow misses the current state of the city, a place where the reality of its situation exceeds anything most film makers could imagine. The modern city that is in reality falling into disrepair is somehow portrayed as a middle-class suburban sprawl (and to add insult to injury, filmed largely in Toronto and Vancouver).
The film is also heavily sanitised – Verhoeven’s approach was to not let you look away, with blood and violence and torture and death showing us a horrible world that needed drastic measures to be saved. Here we have the more Hollywood approach of violence being indirect (such as Murphy caught in an explosion and not explicitly seen being hurt) or without real consequence. Undoubtedly this was to help the film achieve a lower age rating – the 12A of the remake is in strong contrast to the 18 of the original – but also leaves a cleaner feeling city, where the evil being confronted is never quite as evil as before.
There is also the theme of man vs machine – in the original, this was entirely a machine with the man’s identity fighting back; here, Murphy is always considered the dominant element, known as such by colleagues, family and even the public at large. While the man is at times meant to be suppressed by the machine’s programming, he is always Alex Murphy, and the struggle is one of small steps, leaving the victories of the man over the machine as feeling less significant at every stage.
It does have some merits – worries on seeing the trailer about a potentially ninja-like Robocop were unfounded; while at times seeming a little too agile, there was still a feeling of a walking tank on the streets. Kinnaman does move in a properly mechanical manner; when needed, there is a sense of him being physically a machine. There is also a surprisingly decent set piece fight using infra-red and night-vision – perhaps done to avoid too much clear violence and risk the lower age rating, but one that works surprisingly well. The modern special effects also naturally have an edge – the re-imagined ED-209s look far more like effective attack robots, and Kinnaman’s injuries are shown in a manner that took me and others I saw the film with back.
But even ignoring the original and taking this on its own merit, you’re left with a relatively shallow sci-fi movie, one which lacks bites in almost any way that matters. Compare this to the original and that is emphasised on a huge scale.
The potential is there, with hints at how Robocop could be updated well; but this film is not that update.